It seems that a trend of effecting stunning political reversals has percolated from Washington into Westminster. By calling a snap general election, British PM Theresa May has sensationally deviated from her previous stance. The argument that an early election would be a distraction from the core focus on Brexit negotiations has been set aside on the same basis – that in order to provide certainty and stability during the negotiations, the May government needs a decisive mandate.
The country will go to polls on June 8, just under a year after the EU referendum and about two years after its last general elections. As Britain looks to redefine its relationship with the European Union, the broader issues at stake should matter not just to it but to representative democracies elsewhere too.
In large part, the decision to call an early election can be read as a tactical manoeuvre. Theresa May explained her about-turn as being driven by the attitude of opposition parties bent on ‘political game-playing’ to obstruct the government’s approach towards Brexit. The election has therefore been called with the sole purpose of achieving a decisive majority that would unburden May from the pressures of relying on a slim Tory majority.
May might have singled out opposition parties but she is just as concerned with internal dissent within her own party. A healthy cohort of Tory ‘remainers’ will now face the difficult task of rallying around a party manifesto that they might not be entirely aligned with. With the Labour party in disarray under Jeremy Corbyn, May has sought to press home her electoral advantage.
The move is not without its risks despite Labour’s woes. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party might well increase its lead which will further stoke the spectre of separatism given that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain. If Labour loses, it may end up electing a more credible leader than Corbyn. Current polls show the Tories have a commanding lead. Yet, if they do not secure a decisive majority, that will spark greater anxiety and confusion.
The timing of this announcement does not change the fact that the inexorable process to exit the European Union has already begun – that was triggered last month by serving the formal notice of withdrawal to the European authorities under Article 50 of the EU treaty. There is incredible time pressure, since Article 50 comes with an enshrined two year deadline.
In Britain, voters have yet to reconcile to the fact that retaining some form of access to the single market will necessitate compromises on other fronts. Meanwhile, the European authorities show every inclination of being dogmatic, particularly where free movement of labour is concerned. Amid all this, the prospect of an exit without a deal – a ‘hard Brexit’ – cannot be ignored.
May has articulated that a clean and decisive break with Europe would be necessary at all costs in order to “take back control” from Brussels. Her vision has been framed as one about galvanising Britain’s destiny as a sovereign power capable of determining its own choices. It is a worldview that prefers to see Brexit as an opportunity to break free from the shackles of a centralising and bureaucratic EU.
That said, critics within the Tory party cannot be blamed for agonising over the possibility of economic harm due to Brexit. They remain worried that sacrificing Britain’s unrestricted access to Europe’s single market would be an act of self-destructive hubris.
They are rightfully concerned that a reversion to World Trade Organization rules in the event of a hard Brexit may lead to EU imposing higher tariffs on British goods. In a general election campaign, May should expect searching questions on this front.
The thorniest subject remains immigration. Last year’s referendum turned in large part on a crude anti-immigration campaign that resonated with sections of the electorate that despise globalisation and prefer isolation. Yet immigration from within Europe and beyond remains critical to the economy. A grown-up debate about the trade-offs involved has yet to take place.
Ignoring voter anxiety is not an option clearly. In the United States, the same raw voter anger has contributed to Donald Trump’s rise. Across EU, an upsurge of support can also be seen for particular far right movements and leadership, whether it be for Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary or in the rise of the far right in Germany. Impending French elections this month and German elections in September are hugely important in this context.
Back to Britain though, as an electoral campaign gets underway, the truth is that more than ever, a post-Brexit Britain will need to embrace international relationships with gusto. An inward and isolationist Britain is unlikely to win new friends overseas. It also needs allies in Europe.
Reconciling domestic pressures with economic necessity will be tough for sure. But if Britain wants to succeed in a post-Brexit world, a perception of openness will matter greatly at home and overseas. It remains to be seen how these contradictions play out. In this context, the election campaign will be an important harbinger of the shape of things to come.
Times Of India, April 20, 2017